The Neue Galerie built “Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900–1918” around the radiant Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907), embedded in the ornamented wall on its second floor. The exhibition includes an astute selection of the female portraits that Gustav Klimt completed in the mature phase of his life. The portraits were paid commissions that supported Klimt’s work on the allegorical images for which he is usually known, as well as his inimical, tesselated landscape paintings. Klimt nevertheless approached them with the utmost artistic seriousness. A suite of his preparatory drawings fills the anteroom. (Klimt painted slowly, but drew prolifically.)

The Neue has a winner of a concept here and could have done with a simpler show. That it produced a 400-page monograph for an exhibition of, essentially, a dozen paintings tells you what happened instead. There are hats and dresses by the contemporary artist Brett McCormack on mannequins stationed around the rooms. Klimt’s companion, the fashion designer Emile Flöge, ostensibly inspired them. The argument is that Klimt influences the art of the present, but the effect is trivializing, just as when one of the catalogue authors detects a visual relation between Klimt’s Japoniste backgrounds and the overrated work of Kehinde Wiley.

The Neue has a winner of a concept  and could have done with a simpler show.

The catalogue delves further into Art-Nouveau jewelry and furniture, Klimtesque couture by Oscar de la Renta and others, and photographs of a live staging of a Klimt tableaux by Inge Prader (some of which are on display on the basement level of the museum). Interpretive mischief creeps into the voluminous page count. One essay draws an interesting connection between the history of Austrian women’s suffrage and the Vienna Secession, but its relevance is rendered questionable when the author fails to show that Klimt ever had an opinion about women’s suffrage. Another writer ventures, “Klimt may have seen Adele’s nervous gesture as a metaphor for modern, fragile femininity. In his preparatory drawings, the artist internalized this metaphor in an incomparable way.” That may be, or perhaps Bloch-Bauer didn’t want the misshapen finger on her right hand immortalized along with her lovely face, and Klimt obliged. Meanwhile, museum-goers are literally lining up around the corner of the Neue just to look at the paintings.

The key to Klimt’s triumph was synthesis. One can see the relevant work being done in his multiple chalk studies of Bloch-Bauer, with her sitting this way and that in an armchair, sporting various outfits, and him scribbling his way to genius. Somehow, the speed and disorder of the lines only enhances the authority of the drawing. They’re like plates of capellini thrown by a Marine sniper—each chaotic strand hits its target. (The drawings in the anteroom are hung edge to edge, in some places two rows thick, in the half-light now required by conservators of works on paper, making attendance upon any of them a bit of a chore. Excluding all but the drawings of Bloch-Bauer, particularly the lovely but tangentially related nudes, would have clarified how Klimt scrutinized the interplay between person and costume, and made the whole room easier to take in.)

That hard-won familiarity is how geometry and visual turmoil harmonize in Adele I, as the painting references Ravenna mosaics, Egyptian gilding, and European portraiture all at the same time. But that piece is a Neue staple and you can marvel at it at your leisure. This exhibition offers a look at several privately held works and museum loans that together trace Klimt’s development. A casual viewer might mistake the Portrait of Szerena Lederer (1899) for a Whistler. Klimt had not yet seen a Whistler in person in 1899, making this similarity all the more astonishing. Even via reproduction he intuited that the problem of low-contrast images had something in store for him. He returned to it in Jugendstil form in his Portrait of Gertha Loew (1902), the figure hovering angelically in nacreous light within an even more attenuated rectangle.

The key to Klimt’s triumph was synthesis.

Twelve years later, Klimt elongated the form of his subject in the Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer (1914–15) still more dramatically, and he depicted Lederer and her outfit in identical colors of ice. Klimt laid her silvery form into a riot of hue: a ground plane of tangerine and carmine, a background violet and royal blue. The Chinese tapestry behind her lends her wings of flowers, as an embroidered battalion of emperor’s guards and courtesans admire her like putti adoring a Madonna. Pierre Bonnard, whom we usually associate with this kind of palette and formal adventure, and who was only five years younger than Klimt, had not yet painted anything so ambitious, resolved, or delightfully weird. (Klimt died in 1918. Bonnard lived to be a much older man, and caught up.)

An unfinished Portrait of Ria Munk III from 1917 discloses Klimt’s method, although not many artists could resolve the vigorous tangle of chalk that makes up the underdrawing. It’s clearly headed towards a result like The Dancer (1916–17), an equilibrium of furious patterns and big geometries hung on a motif of figure, interior, and still life. Something of Whistler’s formalism—the “arrangement,” as he called it—is still operating here, but Klimt has abandoned Whistler’s tonalism in favor of a visual lightning storm.

Hovering in the intellectual background of Klimt’s milieu is the Gesamtkustwerk, the “total artwork” typified by Wagner’s aspiration to use opera to unify all the other arts, additively. Klimt left the Vienna Secession over a disagreement with his colleagues about the proper form of the Gesamtkunstwerk. (He thought that fine artists and architects ought to be included in Secession exhibitions.) But quality is a process of subtraction, not addition, as is proven when Klimt, his drawing coalescing into certainty, pares his line down to a few essential marks and lands them right on the forms he needs. The current vogue for curatorial maximalism—related in spirit to the Gesamtkunstwerk, though hardly particular to the Neue—clutters this exhibition with an excess of objects and overreaching claims about them. But the truest line, an exploration of Klimt’s power of synthesis, is there to be discovered.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 5 , on page 66
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